Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tragedy uncovers an island of treasures

SAN FERNANDO, SIBUYAN ISLAND -- In the shadow of mystical Mt. Guiting-Guiting is “paradise” -- wonders sufficient to grab the world’s attention from the shipwreck off its pebbled shores.

Unknown to many and sidelined in the global buzz over the sinking of the MV Princess of the Stars, this town in Romblon is home to the crystal waters of the Cantingas River, the gushing Busay Falls, the lush protected areas of the mountain (now a national park), and the tiny island of Cresta de Gallo with its white-sand beaches rivaling Boracay.

“It seems the only concern now is the ship,” Mary Jane Arboleda, a professor at Romblon State College, told the Inquirer.

“We have never experienced a typhoon like [‘Frank’]. This is the first time we experienced this kind of disaster ... because this is paradise. We have many tourist spots, and we used to have many foreign visitors,” she said. “Luxury liners used to dock close to the island, and they would come to town to see how we live, observe the culture.”


The town’s treasures, long the pride of the San Fernando folk, remain largely unexplored because the island is insulated by distance and the Sibuyan Sea.

But the need to develop the ecotourist destinations again arose with the 1,000-strong fisherfolk population bereft of a means of livelihood because of the shipwreck and its dangerous cargo.

Town officials banned all fishing, diving and swimming in the Sibuyan Sea last week, after transportation officials announced the presence of a container van of the toxic pesticide endosulfan in the sunken vessel’s cargo hold.

Authorities fear leakage. Mercifully, Sibuyan’s waters have tested negative of contamination since last week.

But as a result of the ban, the entire town is now dependent on relief packs of rice and canned goods from national and nongovernment agencies.

‘All this beauty’

“We have all this beauty but we need the help of national agencies to develop infrastructure and facilities,” San Fernando Mayor Nanette Tansingco said.

“We have tourist spots, but tourists find it hard to come here because of the problem of accessibility. As you know, trips here are not regular, and the boats leave only at certain times.

“And with the roads alone we have a problem because only 10 percent of the circumferential roads are paved. There is that potential, but we are finding it hard to package the place because we lack the infrastructure.”

The mayor said she had presented her town’s tourism potential to national government agencies. But development has yet to come San Fernando’s way.

She expressed hope that President Macapagal-Arroyo’s recent promise of developing the town’s road network would be the start of finally realizing this goal.

Getting there

To get to San Fernando from Manila, one takes a flight to neighboring Tablas Island and then a boat ride of roughly three hours to Sibuyan Island. The boats set sail only in the day, and with the weather and waves permitting.

Or one takes a ship from the Batangas port to San Fernando’s neighboring Magdiwang town, a ride of roughly 14 hours that also goes around towns in Tablas before docking at Sibuyan.

From the Magdiwang port town, jeepneys ferry passengers in a two-hour commute to San Fernando.

Once there, one can hire a tricycle and then hike from the rough road to the foot of Guiting-Guiting, which ushers water through San Fernando’s unspoiled rivers along steep gorges and into the Sibuyan Sea.

Reputed to be among the country’s cleanest, the Cantingas River in Taclobo, the barangay nearest the shipwreck, is accessible by a paved path from the main road.

Sweet water

Often empty, a cottage house by the river served as home to Coast Guard officers who stayed in town last week to conduct search, rescue and retrieval operations at the shipwreck.

Farther down the main road, a waterfall that locals tag as “Piknikan” (or a place to hold a picnic) drains from Guiting-Guiting into the Cantingas River.

Piknikan, which one reaches after a hike of roughly 15 minutes through narrow weed paths and riverside boulders from Sitio Cabitangahan, provides fresh water that locals find fit to drink.

“The water there is sweet. We even use it as chaser for our drinks,” quipped a villager.

Some 2.5 meters from the town center, the Busay Falls showers cool water into a natural pool in Barangay Panangcalan.

According to Tansingco, the rivers drain out to sea and are in no danger of contamination even if toxic chemicals leak into Sibuyan waters.

Some 45 minutes from the island is Cresta de Gallo, a 5-hectare “virgin islet” surrounded by transparent blue waters and coral reefs.

“It’s a great diving spot,” said Tansingco. “You can circle the shoreline in 30 minutes. It’s like Boracay ... [except that] it doesn’t have facilities, not even fresh water.”

Saw-toothed ridges

Guiting-Guiting (or “G2”) is thus called because of its “saw-toothed” ridges.

Its steep slopes and vertical rock walls continue to challenge even the experienced mountaineers, who regard it as one of the “most difficult climbs” in the country, along with the jagged-edged Halcon (in Oriental Mindoro) and Mantalingajan (in Palawan).

G2 is also known for its rich biodiversity, and studies cite five mammal species—the Greater Sibuyan and Lesser Sibuyan forest mice, the Sibuyan giant moss mouse, the Sibuyan pygmy fruit bat and the Sibuyan striped shrew rat—found on no other mountain.

The rare Philippine tube-nosed rat and Philippine hawk eagle are also among the mountain’s inhabitants, thriving in a lush forest cover with a variety of endemic fauna.


San Fernando’s nature spots are a staple in the townsfolk’s conversations with visitors. And the chit-chat always comes with a warning.

“This is an enchanted place,” Meriam Rafol, a long-time resident and teacher at the local state college, told the Inquirer.

“If you notice, there’s no nightlife here and there are no bars. Those who dared put up one lost their business because the mountain’s spirits do not like that,” she said.

According to Rafol, there was once a riverside bar/restaurant in Cantingas but the river swallowed it whole.

Then there was a visitor who went for a swim in Cantingas and later insisted that he had met a woman in white—someone that none of his companions saw.

The townsfolk also spoke of hearing the mountain cry and wail as mining explorers drilled into rock walls in search of nickel, and of the mountain bleeding each time a drill struck its face.

Golden ship

And talking about another mystical presence, the locals told stories of the “MV Sibuyan,” a purported golden ship that would show itself to a vessel in trouble at sea and guide it to safe shelter.

“Sailors think it’s a real ship on its way to a safe dock. They do not know that the ship goes straight to Cantingas; that’s why many ships run aground here,” Rafol said.

The way the townsfolk tell it, the mountain’s mystical dwellers only want respect and care from visitors.

(by Tarra Quismundo of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Southern Luzon Bureau)

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